Posts Tagged ‘Trieste’

My rendition of gubana delle Valli del Natisone, as featured in Flavors of Friuli

While doing research for Flavors of Friuli, one of my most nagging questions was this: is there any difference between gubana and the similar-looking spiral pastries from Trieste, putizza and presnitz, or are they simply regional names for the same dessert? On one of my trips I spoke to a woman working at Pasticceria Ducale in Cividale del Friuli, and she gave me what was the clearest explanation I’d yet found.

Derived from the Slovene word guba, meaning “wrinkle” or “fold,” the name gubana is suggestive of the swirls and spirals in the pastry. While literary sources date similar recipes to the Middle Ages and perhaps even the Romans, the first document to mention gubana by name was written in 1576. There are two types of gubana: gubana delle Valli del Natisone and gubana Cividalese.

Putizza, photo courtesy of Pasticceria Penso

Gubana delle Valli del Natisone is a large spiral cake made with a yeast-based dough and filled with dried fruit, nuts, and spices. It appears very similar to putizza, the spiral cake from Trieste, which gets its name from the Slovenian pastry called potica. As it was explained to me at Pasticceria Ducale, putizza contains chocolate, while gubana delle Valli del Natisone typically does not; otherwise they are quite similar. Later, as I sampled multiple versions of both cakes, I discovered several other differences, notably that this type of gubana is baked as a free-form loaf, while putizza is baked in a round cake pan (or in some bakeries, a paper mold). As I began to test-bake recipes, I came to understand the reason for this. The dough for putizza is much softer and doesn’t hold its shape when filled, necessitating a pan to contain the spiral. In addition, putizza tends to have a higher filling-to-dough ratio, making it a richer, more decadent treat.

Gubana Cividalese, Pasticceria Ducale

Gubana Cividalese contains the same filling as the Valli del Natisone version but is prepared with puff pastry and rolled into a snake-like spiral. When gubana was first conceived, puff pastry required equipment and knowledge only available to the upper classes, making gubana Cividalese the aristocrat’s pastry of choice in the prominent city of Cividale, while gubana delle Valli del Natisone was the version typically prepared by peasants living in the valleys around the Natisone River.

Presnitz, photo courtesy of Pasticceria Penso

Like gubana Cividalese, presnitz, named after the Slovenian Easter cake called presnec, is made with puff pastry and contains a filling of dried fruit, nuts, and spices. In our conversation, the woman at Pasticceria Ducale asserted that gubana Cividalese and presnitz were entirely identical. Since then I have learned that, while this may be true for modern versions of the pastries, historically there is one significant difference. Because Trieste’s wealth during the Hapsburg era brought an increased availability of exotic imports such as spices, nuts, and liqueurs to the city, presnitz was considered a more refined pastry and typically comprised a much longer ingredient list than its counterpart from Cividale. Presnitz was first presented to the empress Elisabeth during a mid-19th century visit to Trieste.

Recipes for gubana delle Valli del Natisone, gubana Cividalese, putizza, and presnitz may be found in my book Flavors of Friuli: A Culinary Journey through Northeastern Italy.

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For my Recipe of the Month, I have chosen Strucolo de Pomi (Apple Strudel), in honor of the Festa della Mela, held in mid-September in the Carnian town of Tolmezzo. While apple strudel is popular throughout Friuli, this version using puff pastry is based on the recipe given to me by Trieste’s Pasticceria Penso. Visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com for the recipe.

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For my Recipe of the Month, I have chosen Calamari Ripieni (Stuffed Squid). Popular in many coastal regions of Italy, as well as along the Istrian peninsula, stuffed calamari are featured on menus at the numerous seafood restaurants that line Trieste’s waterfront. Visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com for the recipe.

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For my Recipe of the Month, I have chosen Strucolo de Spinaze (Spinach-Filled Pasta Roll). Strucolo means “strudel” in the Triestine dialect, though restaurants may also refer to the dish as a “rotolo” or “rollata.” It is quite common throughout the Carso, often served with the pan sauces from a roasted or braised meat. Visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com for the recipe.

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This review was originally published in the September 2010 issue of Dream of Italy.

My fondest memory of Trieste will always be the day I first stepped into Pasticceria Penso. My timing seems predestined—I arrived on a blustery February morning just as a few dozen chocolate cakes were being pulled from the oven. I was immediately invited back into the cozy kitchen to watch their transformation into torta Sacher. The patriarch of the family-run bakery, Italo Stoppar, doused each layer of cake with Maraschino liqueur, then spread on a thick coat of apricot preserves. His son Antonello drizzled the top with dark chocolate ganache, which was soon followed by a garnish of chocolate sprinkles around the sides. This was just the first of many such mornings; the next year, I arranged for an apartment across the street, so that I could spend countless hours observing their techniques—and sampling every cream-stuffed, chocolate-glazed, fruit-filled morsel I could possibly devour.

The bakery was founded in 1920 by Trieste native Narciso Penso. When he died in 1971, the store was bought by one of his young employees, Italo Stoppar, who had begun working at Penso in the 1960s after a stint as a pastry chef on the cruise ship Lloyd Triestino.

Today, as Stoppar passes on the trade to his two sons, Lorenzo and Antonello, Pasticceria Penso is truly a family business. Brother-in-law Giovanni also helps out in the kitchen, while Italo’s wife, Rosanna, and Giovanni’s wife, Silvana, tend to customers. The mood is light, the kitchen functioning like a well-choreographed ballet, each person silently knowing everyone else’s next move. Italo’s role is both slicer and icer. He can usually be seen preparing the layered cakes and jelly rolls—slicing the cakes into layers, spreading them with buttercream frosting, whipped cream, ganache, or caramel, and finally slicing the sheet cakes into the proper rectangular serving size. His steady hand also garnishes birthday cakes with whipped cream flowers and flourishes, piping special messages in chocolate icing. Lorenzo is in charge of dough, filling tartlet pans with crostata crust and rolling puff pastry for strudel. Antonello handles a little of everything, from applying fruit garnishes to measuring and mixing cake batter, from sorting and grinding almonds for marzipan to melting chocolate for ganache.

True to Trieste’s multiethnic roots, Pasticceria Penso specializes in the pastries from Austria and Hungary, such as the ever-popular Sacher and Dobos cakes, as well as the ubiquitous local desserts presnitz, putizza, and pinza. In all, they make around thirty-five different types of pastries, cakes, and cookies, which are purchased by locals for both special anniversary celebrations and as a Sunday post-church ritual. The sturdier pastries are also shipped to clients throughout Europe, the United States, and Australia.

In a city that clings to heritage and tradition, Pasticceria Penso is surprisingly one of just a few surviving bakeries from its era. The quality of their product is surely what has kept Penso in business for so many years. They use only butter—unlike many modern bakeries that rely on margarine to prolong shelf life—and always top-quality ingredients, from the richest, darkest baking chocolate to the Bulgarian rose oil that flavors the pink fave dei morti cookies. Their key to success is perhaps identical to the inherent nature of Trieste itself—classic Viennese precision combined with pure Italian passion.

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Since I had gone to bed so early the night before, it had taken me hours to fall asleep. When I finally drifted off, I experienced a bizarre dream: my fiancé playing with marionette puppets that had floppy pieces of sushi at the end of the strings! I awoke at 4:30am, full of nervous anticipation over my impending departure. With my brain anxiously running through mental checklists to make sure I hadn’t forgotten anything, I lay there in the dark for two hours, waiting for my alarm to go off.

Once I had showered and dressed, I crossed the street to Pasticceria Penso one final time to find the Stoppar family busy preparing the day’s sweets. Italo and his son Antonello were putting the final touches on a batch of sachertortes. Italo’s other son, Lorenzo, was rolling out puff pastry for apple strudel, and Uncle Giovanni was busy frying another batch of krapfen (doughnuts).

They persuaded me to wait for them to come to a stopping point so we could take some photos together. So I hung out there for an hour, at which point Antonello began scrabbling around the kitchen, pulling out a random selection of oversized tools: a large chef’s knife, an even bigger rolling pin, a giant wooden paddle, an enormous whisk, and a copper pot. He doled out the props, handing me the pot and whisk, and we paraded out of the kitchen into the shop, where we posed for a series of silly pictures (which I sadly never did receive copies of).

As always, Antonello’s mother, Rosanna, offered me a gift to take home—this time a putizza (spiral cake filled with raisins, nuts, and chocolate). I tried to politely decline, explaining how overstuffed my bags already were, but she was very persistent. I didn’t want to seem rude, so I accepted. Saying goodbye wasn’t easy, since the family had practically taken me in and made me feel at home in a very short period of time. But I had a train to catch, so I hugged them each one last time and made my exit.

Back at my apartment, I collected my uneaten food items—the last of my bread and cheese, an apple and banana, a small yogurt, and the remaining pastries from Penso (one piece of sachertorte and one domino)—which would serve as my lunch on the train today as well as snacks on my long train ride to Vienna tomorrow. I was so loaded down, even with my extra collapsible tote bag, that I had to put all this excess food in a plastic grocery bag. There was absolutely no room for the putizza, nor the two bags of fave dei morti given to me by Rosanna the day before, so I left these in my room as gifts for the housekeeping staff.

I checked out of Residence Liberty and made my final trek to Trieste’s train station, where I successfully avoided the long line at the counter by buying my ticket at the automatic ticket machine. I had planned on doing some reading during the hour-long ride, but my book was buried in the bottom of my backpack and would have required some serious unpacking to dig out, so I spent most of the journey nibbling on bread, cheese, and apple and staring out the window at the rapidly passing countryside.

I arrived in Udine shortly after noon. Before leaving the station, I purchased my ticket for the train to Vienna, which would be leaving early the next morning. I made sure to get a seat reservation, as I had heard on the news that Trenitalia recommended reserving in advance due to the busy All Saints’ Day holiday weekend.

I checked into Hotel Principe, which had become my usual lodging in Udine, given its super friendly staff and convenient location almost directly across the street from the train station. The weather was rather nippy, and there was nothing much to do in the city, as all the stores and sights were closed for the afternoon and many were closed all day—either for the holiday, or perhaps just because it was Monday. So I opted to stay in and rest. My relentless pace over the past month had caught up to me, and I was feeling overwhelmingly exhausted.

However, the pre-travel jitters left me unable to truly relax. I was ready to skip ahead to tomorrow morning so I could be on my way. I unpacked what I needed, spreading my things out on the second bed. (Yet one more thing I liked about Hotel Principe was that I always had a double room with two beds!) Then I tried to do some writing but embarrassingly ended up playing Solitaire on my laptop instead. I watched a little TV and flipped through some of the cookbooks I had bought in Trieste. I was so bored at one point I resorted to scrolling through ringtones on my cell phone just to kill time.

My room was freezing, equally cold as past wintertime visits. I knew the heat would kick on later, but those midday hours, when guests were most often out and about, were typically the coldest. During many of my winter stays there, I more often than not found myself crawling into bed and taking a nap before dinner. Today I hadn’t worn myself out hiking through hill towns or exploring villages, but I still allowed myself to lie down awhile.

I left for dinner a little early, so that I could wander around a bit while it was still light out. On my way out, I stopped to chat with Michela at the reception desk, as well as Lucinda, who was in charge of the breakfast room. They are both such nice people and always seemed so pleased to see me. They knew about the cookbook I was writing, since I had often made Hotel Principe my home base during my research trips, and were interested in my progress. Chatting with them lifted my mood considerably, and I felt invigorated stepping out into the chilly late afternoon air.

I headed straight to the city center and, on impulse, ducked inside the Duomo, where a small service was in progress. Half the church’s interior was blocked off by scaffolding, renovations clearly in progress. I quietly skirted the nave until I reached a shadowy tunnel of curtains that allowed visitors to view the Tiepolo masterpieces being restored.

From there, I took a short detour through Piazza della Libertà, just to gaze at the Venetian-style square one last time—to impress upon my memory all the details, as I didn’t expect to be back for a long time. (In fact, I never did return to Udine, since subsequent health problems have made travel impossible for me.) The pink and white stripes of the Loggia del Lionello were illuminated by spotlights and stood out vividly against the now darkening sky. Tons of people were out strolling the streets, a disproportionate number wearing witch’s hats—I had nearly forgotten that it was Halloween!

After meandering up and down Via Mercatovecchio, admiring the window displays and browsing briefly in the bookshop Libreria Ubik, I veered westward, heading in the direction of the cobblestone Via Viola and my destination, Osteria Al Vecchio Stallo. I arrived not long after the restaurant opened to find the elderly nonna of the family having dinner at her usual corner table.

For my final Friulian meal, I was tempted to order my all-time favorite, frico con patate, but instead went with another traditional dish, musetto e brovada. Musetto is a fatty, cartilaginous sausage made from pig snout, skin, and various other bits of pork all mixed together with white wine and spices. Its traditional accompaniment is brovada, turnips fermented for a month in grape marc. I had tried both several times before but not for over a year, since brovada is a seasonal dish and wasn’t available during my most recent spring and summer trips. I wanted to instill the taste memory so that I could effectively recreate a short-cut brovada at home, as well as find a suitable substitute for musetto (I ended up using cotechino, which is more readily available in the U.S.). While neither musetto nor brovada would have qualified as my favorite dish, I didn’t remember either being this unpleasant. Cut into chunky, round slices, the musetto was greasy, sticky, and downright mucilaginous. The brovada was just as sour and vinegary as ever, its flavor definitely an acquired taste—though my own version of 48-hour marinated turnips ended up being pretty spot-on.

As an accompaniment, I ordered a side of grilled eggplant, zucchini, and red bell pepper. I also treated myself to a quartino (quarter liter) of the house red wine. When I had finished my meal, the waiter brought me a small wine glass of what I later learned was called sgroppino, as a complimentary treat for Halloween. The drink was like a liquidy lemon sorbetto with a light sprinkling of cocoa on top, but I also detected a flavor that I couldn’t quite place. It wasn’t until I had returned to my hotel room and sat down to enjoy my sachertorte and domino for dessert that it occurred to me that the mysterious flavor was alcohol—likely prosecco and grappa—for I was suddenly feeling rather drunk!

Photos of sachertorte and krapfen courtesy of Pasticceria Penso.

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After a rather restless night of sleep, I was awakened by the sun streaming in through the curtains, the first glimpse of sunshine I had seen in days. My mood, which had been a bit gloomy all week, partly due to the weather and partly due to my impending departure, suddenly lifted. It was also a refreshing change to see the sun rise earlier, after having set the clocks back an hour the night before. But when I emerged from the shower, a mass of gray clouds had crept in again. My spirits plummeted. I no longer felt like going outside, but seeing as it was my final day in Trieste, I forced myself to get dressed and crossed the street to Pasticceria Penso.

I arrived at the bakery to find a batch of krapfen fresh out of the fryer. Uncle Giovanni was in the process of filling the puffy doughnuts with apricot jam. He offered me one, along with a taste of the checkerboard marzapane Antonello had made the day before. Antonello’s mother, Rosanna, gave me a wrapped slice of each of their five varieties of marzapane—checkerboard, orange, cherry, walnut, and chocolate-hazelnut—along with two bags of fave dei morti, those tiny pink, white, and brown almond cookies that are so popular on All Saints’ Day.

As usual, the family was busy preparing a variety of cakes, tarts, and pastries. Antonello was artistically topping large crostate with a kaleidoscope of fresh fruit. Lorenzo was making what they called napolitana, presumably their version of the Neopolitan sfogliatelle, puff pastry filled with vanilla pastry cream. Their father, Italo, was decorating a special order birthday cake, a rectangular sponge cake filled with chocolate pastry cream and topped with a border of whipped cream, maraschino cherries, and a cartoon image of Minnie Mouse.

I hung around until about 11:00am, when the family was kind enough to pause for a few photos. I was still having trouble with my point-and-shoot camera, my only one with a flash for indoor shots. By now I had figured out the trick to keeping the power on while snapping a picture: I needed to physically hold the sliding lens cover open the entire time I was using it. But the latest problem was that the viewfinder had gone black. I could still take a photo and view the image in playback mode, but I was forced to set up my shots blindly. It was impossible to tell if my subject was in the frame or if the camera was properly focused. I took a bunch of pictures of the family posing in the kitchen, hoping that one of them might be usable.

Since I was departing Trieste on a Monday, when Penso was typically closed, I had planned on saying goodbye to the family today. I had even brought them a bag of my unused kitchen supplies, including some olive oil, salt, pepper, dish soap, and sponges. However, it turned out that the bakery would be open for the entire All Saints’ Day weekend, including Monday, and they asked me to stop by again in the morning to say our farewells. Antonello gave me a presnitz to bring home, and as always, offered me a choice of pastries. Already loaded down with so many generous gifts, I asked for just a single domino (sponge cake layered with chocolate buttercream, glazed with chocolate ganache, and decorated with white icing), but he wrapped up two along with two slices of sachertorte, which he knew was my favorite.

I hadn’t planned on taking any more trips out of town, but I suddenly felt the urge to do something special on my last day. The sun had reappeared, and I was at once overwhelmed with a desire to see the ocean—from somewhere other than Trieste, that is. So I walked to Piazza Oberdan and caught the next #44 bus to Duino, where I could have lunch with a seafront view at Ristorante Alla Dama Bianca. Mike and I had enjoyed a lovely meal there in the spring of the previous year, the same day we had visited Castello di Duino and hiked along the Sentiero Rilke from Duino to Sistiana.

When I arrived in Duino an hour later, I made the short trek down the hill to the harbor, where I found Alla Dama Bianca packed with guests. There were no seats available in the dining room, but I found a free table outside overlooking the water. Despite the chilly weather, I was surrounded by tourists, including two English-speaking couples and several groups speaking German.

I ordered an antipasto of mussels and clams in tomato broth and then the seppioline alla griglia (grilled cuttlefish) for my second course. However, my order must have gotten miscommunicated to the kitchen, because the waiter brought me a calamari salad to start, followed by a bowl of mussels and clams. Both dishes were clearly from the antipasto menu. I tried to explain the mistake, but the African waiter did not seem to understand my Italian. I gave up, figuring there was no harm as long as I was billed the correct amount. The seafood was quite delicious, although the mussels and clams were not served al pomodoro as the menu had indicated.

I got back to my apartment around 3:30pm and spent the rest of the day organizing and packing. With the extra items I had acquired, such as the Illy espresso cup and the two spiny spider crab shells, not to mention all the goodies lavished on me by the Stoppar family, my backpack and rolling duffel were overflowing. I would need to pull out the handy collapsible nylon tote bag I had bought in Venezia on a previous trip. And with any luck, it would be cold again tomorrow, so that I could wear an extra sweater and lighten my load a little more.

It got dark early, around 5:00pm, and with nothing left to do, I ate an early dinner: the second slice of melanzane alla parmigiana from yesterday, along with a slice of crusty bread. There was nothing interesting on TV, but I kept it on in the background anyway, hoping the language would somehow seep into my brain even though I wasn’t paying much attention.

After indulging in two of Penso’s chocolate pastries for dessert, I went to bed early. I read a little but didn’t want to finish my book before my long journey home. So I lay in bed for several hours, feeling ambivalent about having to leave Trieste. I was looking forward to all the comforts of home, like sleeping in my own bed and cooking in a proper kitchen and not having to put up with cigarette smoke wafting into my bathroom from the apartment next door. Most of all I looked forward to seeing Mike! But I would really miss Trieste and my dear friends at Pasticceria Penso. To this day, my time in Trieste is one of my most cherished memories.

Photos of krapfen, crostata, and dominoes courtesy of Pasticceria Penso.

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